Confronting (personal) identities

clip_image004Last time, the diverse experiences of RESMAAS students in Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania have been described. This time, we will continue with fieldwork experiences from Malawi and South Africa.

Music is a part of their everyday life for many people. We listen to it at home, while on our way to work or university and then, when it is weekend we visit bars, clubs or festivals to consume more music helping us relax. But, music not only serves as entertainment, it also shapes who we are while simultaneously reflecting who we are.  Maike, in her research, however goes a step further. She looks into music and it’s relation to culture and identity, or, as she describes it herself “the processes  of arising identities among youth with an Afrikaner background, born after 1994.” She tries to gain more insight into these processes by interviewing students, professors, leaders of civil society, etc. The perfect place to kick-start these conversations are the Afrikaner music festivals in/around Pretoria where the language-identity debate is particularly fierce, especially due to the government’s language policies. Using participant observation and interviews it becomes increasingly clear how much Afrikaans as a language lies at the heart of Afrikaner identity and how complicate and intricate language’s role within politics is. By using music as a means to untangle complex concepts as identity Maike manages to combine work and pleasure in her studies.

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Figure 1: Music as a means to understand identities

Thandi’s research in first instance looks like it is a world apart. Focusing on “religious women’s response to HIV/AIDS-related stigma at community level” in Malawi she addresses an issue facing millions of people, not just in Malawi or Africa but worldwide. The sensitivity of the topic can’t be underestimated since many of her respondents know HIV-positive people within their own communities. Despite both the physical and social risks involved in engaging with HIV-positive people, her respondents tried to create an environment where infected people can live without fear. This fascinating example of the ways in which communities support the weaker within society, even when they are having to cope with difficulties themselves serves as an inspiration to all. At times, especially when being in the field, the local situation can be overwhelming. Being able to remember why we go on fieldwork in the first place therefore is something we must keep in mind. Thandi explicitly recognizes this when she notes that “it was an enriching experience because not only did I learn more about the social impacts of stigma, I was also able to build research experience.”

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Figure 2: Mothers know best!

The last experience I want to share with you is my own. Like Maike, I went to South Africa. To be precise, to Stellenbosch, just north of Cape Town. My research focused on a social/affirmative action policy called Black Economic Empowerment. I looked at how workers on wine farms perceived this policy and what their priorities were in regard to their own empowerment. Like HIV infected people (and, depending who you ask, Afrikaners as well), farm workers are often marginalized by society. Nonetheless, positive thoughts remain. When one worker I interviewed told me that “if you enjoy yourself, enjoy your work and be positive you are empowered already” I was fascinated, especially because an owner of a different farm told me that “empowerment has been a disaster, an absolute disaster.” The lesson I learned from this is that while people face severe hardships, as farm workers do, they remain positive. By visiting many different farms I of course also got different perspectives, negative workers, positive farmers and everything in between. This research allowed me to explore the beautiful region I lived in while being confronted with the extreme hardships and inequality affecting so many South Africans. It makes me feel privileged to be able to carry out fieldwork and all the more convinced that the only way in which social policy can address the problems faced by its intended benefactors requires a bottom-up approach.

Like last time, we see three very different topics and experiences. Yet, there are many similarities that connect these researches. Groups, be it Afrikaners, communities with HIV-positive members or farm workers, undergo good and bad times yet find positive ways to express themselves. In Maike’s case, language issues and a fear of being marginalized by the government leads to people coming together on music festivals. Thandi illustrates how people selfishly try and support people being shunned by other groups in society. When workers on one of my research locations organized a gospel music festival for thousands of farm workers this again illustrated that people try and make the best out of their situation. A second similarity is that research is always confronting. Being expected to support certain political ideas at music festivals, engaging with HIV-positive people or seeing extreme wealth and extreme poverty go hand in hand are daily realities during field work. This makes fieldwork the exciting experience it is. Not because it is easy, not because it is hard but because it constantly challenges us to reflect on ourselves. What do we think? do we want to accept the realities surrounding us? How are we ourselves shaped by these realities? Such questions are the result of fieldwork, oh, and of course, a bag of data which we can start sorting through when returning home.

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